NO TEARS FOR THE DEAD – Blu-ray review

Tough guys and kids. What is it that makes them so fascinating? In “Leon: The Professional” an assassin reluctantly “adopted” a girl whose family was murdered and taught her the trade. In the 2010 South Korean film “The Man from Nowhere,” Lee Jeong-beom gave us the story of a pawnshop owner whose violent past enabled him to take on a drug- and organ-trafficking operation in order to save a child he befriended.

But in “No Tears for the Dead” (2014), writer-director Lee focuses on a hit man who connects with a child that’s inexplicably sitting alone at a table in a nightclub. The assassin makes origami and funny faces and is obviously taken with her. But when the bullets start to fly, in the mass confusion he accidentally kills her. Later, when the big boss tells him to kill the mother, too, to clean up his mess, he starts out with every intention of doing so. But the closer he gets to her, the more reluctant he becomes. Before long, he’s defending her against hordes of assassins who are trying to not just finish the job for him, but to get an important piece of information that she’s holding—with more than $100 million embezzlement money at stake.

That’s the premise in a nutshell, though it’s sometimes difficult to keep the thugs and the people they work for straight. Logic can be a bit strained, too, at times, as when an army of SWAT police surrounds the bad guys at a corporate building in Seoul, but that’s pretty much the last we see of them other than a single guy reporting that he found nothing—all because the filmmaker wanted to isolate the protagonist and his former mercenary pals for one last drag-out, kick-ass fight to the death. How fun would it be if the cops just showed up and took over? Then again, how crazy is it that they surround the building but then just disappear?

That’s one of several complaints I have about a film that still had me in its grip. That’s what a rain of bullets and buckets of blood will do. Realistic, ultraviolent action sequences are the chief strength of “No Tears for the Dead.” I haven’t seen a car so shot full of holes since “Bonnie and Clyde.” Unfortunately, the narrative also had a few holes. A backstory involving the hit man Gon (Jang Dong-gun) seems token at best and doesn’t tonally connect with the rest of the film. And how exactly the woman (Kim Min-hee) is involved with the bad guys can be a bit of a head-scratcher. The same holds true for the brotherhood of assassins theme that suddenly comes into play in the third act when the main villain Chaoz (Brian Tee) tees off against the hero.

In a 30-minute interview dubbed a “commentary,” the director admits there’s very little action for a good hour after the initial effects sequences, but adds that he was trying to give the hero and his intended target the chance to get to know each other. I’m not sure it’s worth the trade-off, but thankfully the action picks up enough to where we don’t have much time to dwell on such vagaries. Lee said he wanted to forego the noir style that’s typical of such films and instead go for open spaces, open air, and daylight—all of which pose challenges for realistic action. But as I said, the action is the film’s main strength. Aside from some spurting blood that’s done for stylistics, it’s some of the most realistic stunt work and effects that I’ve seen—including a memorable car crunch and a “take-out” scene where a man is shot at multiple times point-blank and is blown backwards. That the director didn’t resort to slo-mo or editing tricks and opted to do his action work in the bright light of day ought to make action fans giddy—even if the plot and character relationships aren’t as developed as Lee thinks they are.

“No Tears for the Dead” has a runtime of 116 minutes and is not rated—though it would easily merit an R here in America it’s so ultraviolent.

“No Tears for the Dead” is presented in 16×9 widescreen, and it has that same blue-toned, slightly industrial look that characterizes the stylish action thrillers coming out of South Korea these days. Edge detail is superb, and the level of detail even in shadows and low-lit scenes is impressive. I noticed only a few instances of aliasing. Otherwise, it was a terrific AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.

The factory preset, if you press “play movie,” is a dubbed English 5.1, but you can watch the film in the original, much-preferred Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 with automatically preset English subtitles. It’s a bilingual film, though, so don’t freak out if you choose Korean and some of the mafiosa are speaking English from time to time. When the bullets start to fly you hear them rip chunks of metal and tear through concrete. Explosions rock the room, and the action gets a nice assist from the soundtrack. Additional options are English and Korean Dolby Digital 2.0.

Included is a director’s commentary that’s really an on-camera interview that’s more featurette length, but it’s a good one. Same with a 27-minute “making of” featurette. Between these two relatively scant features I really learned a lot, not just about this film and South Korean filmmaking, but about filmmaking in general. The stars trained for four months at “action school” and because the director knows a lot about guns he had his South Korean star learn from real sergeants how to shoot and feel comfortable with the Western weapons he uses in the film. It was also fascinating to hear how the second unit in L.A.—an American team—came into conflict with the Korean director and his main unit, partly because of work differences that are peculiar to each country.

There are three main deleted scenes, two of which provide more backstory for the hit man’s relationship with his mother and “grandmother,” and one of which shows him sizing up his target in a theater. All three are worth watching, and they’ll probably leave you wondering where they could have been inserted, and whether it would help the film.

Most of the other features are brief promos for either the film or the Blu-ray/DVD release:  two character spots, action highlights, a Brian Tee (“The Wolverine”) promo spot, and trailers.

Bottom line:
I’m a fan of contemporary South Korean cinema and love how stylish the films are. “No Tears for the Dead” is no exception. That it’s not one of the strongest crime thrillers I’ve seen is a tribute to the action, the stunts, and the special/visual effects:  I liked it despite its shortcomings.